When a criminal defendant has served a sentence, completed probation, or paid the fines, the repercussions from sentencing can follow him or her for years to come. That is because even after the price has been paid and civil rights restored, many people find the public record of what happened to them preventing them from finding housing or employment.

Public Records Can Create Problems

Public records of convictions can hamper someone’s ability to get a job and affect anything that requires background checks. Defendants who may feel they are innocent, but take a deal to mitigate punishment, still have the conviction on their record. Even those who may have had charges dismissed often find the interaction with the criminal justice system on their records.

Certainly, the public as well as employers deserve to know if someone has a criminal history, and background checks serve an integral purpose to keeping us all safe. But for many, the stigma of a criminal history can prevent them from making a fresh start.

New Law Allows Fresh Starts

Maryland has now passed a law that makes it easier for those who are convicted of a crime to expunge or hide criminal histories. For certain offenses the law allows a public record to be “shielded,” which means that it will be hidden from public view (and thus, any employer doing a background check), but will still be available to law enforcement.

For other charges, and for those who had charges completely dismissed, the record can be expunged, or completely erased. Charges relating to certain offenses that are now considered “non-criminal,” such as possession of small amounts of cannabis, are also able to be expunged.

The law will apply to non-violent offenses, such as destruction of property, possession of marijuana and other dangerous substances, and prostitution. Theft-related offenses are not covered under the new law.

Awareness of Recidivism

The law was spurred by the new effort nationally (as we discussed here on the blog a few weeks ago) to reduce the rate of recidivism (repeat offenders). The hope is that those who are able to obtain gainful employment after prison or parole are less likely to re-enter the criminal justice system. Maryland is not alone. At least 31 states have passed similar laws since 2009, designed to assist people in re-entering the job market.

Not everybody favors the new law. Many employers have expressed concern over the ability to fully vet their potential hires. But many are taking advantage of the new law, some even lining up for “expungement fairs,” where those who qualify can get assistance from legal aid organizations in shielding their records.

You may be able to clean up your public record or avoid any criminal record at all with the right criminal defense. Contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today for a free consultation to discuss your rights.

It looks like reform may be coming to Maryland’s criminal justice system. Legislators have made criminal justice reform a top priority, and while nothing has passed yet, Maryland appears to be getting on board with the national realization that more prison sentences and prison inmates do not mean more safety or rehabilitation.

Recidivism and Prison Rates Cause Concern

A major concern of any criminal justice system is the rate of recidivism–that is, how often criminals repeat their offenses and end up back in the criminal justice system. In the U.S., the issue is particularly important, as one study has shown that this country houses over half of the world’s prisoners. The prison problem has grown as many states passed mandatory sentence laws that prevent a judge or jury from having discretion in sentencing.

Legislators have noted that in Maryland, many convicts are more likely to commit crimes when they leave prison than they were before they entered. One study shows that four of every ten offenders will end up back in jail after three years.

Maryland and Other States Consider Options

Alternatives have been tried in other states. In Texas, legislators have opted for home detention, probation, increased supervision, and other non-incarceration options. These plans have also saved Texas millions of dollars, as supervising people through parole programs is cheaper than building or maintaining prisons.

Maryland’s governor recently signed a bill forming the Maryland Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Counsel to study these issues. And reforms are needed. For example, 58% of those who ended up in state prisons were there for violating parole. That means that the entire parole system may need review and revision.

But those who are in parole successfully have a much lower rate of recidivism than those who serve time in prison, according to a study by the Pew Charitable Trust.

Additionally, inmates are actually spending 23% longer in prison today than they did ten years ago.

Maryland has made some headway in decreasing the prison population by changing certain drug crimes to “non-criminal” infractions. Given that more people end up in Maryland prisons for drug crimes than for any other offense, this is an important change in the law, but it is likely too early to determine the change’s effect on Maryland’s prison population.

Many of the proposed changes will not affect the most violent criminal offenders. For those who are considered low-risk, the urge to rehabilitate instead of incarcerate is taking hold nationwide.

Harsh sentencing laws make it all the more important for you have an attorney that understands all of your options if you are charged with a crime. The attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience in trying criminal cases. If you or someone you know was arrested or charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.

Recently we considered the issue of how the constitution interplays with officers’ ability to search and seize cell phones. The law is ever changing and creates fascinating constitutional questions, so this week, we will look at another case involving the same topic, but with a different angle.

Text Message Leads to Conviction

The case involves an officer who testified that he received information about a drug deal from an informant. When he arrived at the scene, the officer observed a golf cart near a Nissan, a man standing between them, and the Defendant in the case sitting in the passenger seat of the Nissan.

The officer asked the men if they had any drugs on them. A man said he had a “bowl” on him, and the officer searched him. The Defendant, still in the car, said that he had pills, which the officer believed were oxycodone. The Defendant told the officer he had a prescription for them.

The officer searched the Nissan and found a cellphone, which the officer stated was ringing. The Defendant allegedly stated the phone was his. The officer opened the phone, and saw text messages that he believed were people looking to buy pills. After obtaining a warrant, the remainder of the phone was searched.

The Defendant’s motion to suppress the cell phone information as an unreasonable search and seizure was denied, the Defendant was convicted, and appealed.

Appeal Hinges on Old and New Laws

On appeal, the state argued that the officer only conducted a cursory on-site look at the phone, and the text messages were in plain view when he opened the phone.

In 2012, the United States Supreme Court did determine that a search of a cell phone required a warrant. In that case, the phone was a smartphone. But here, the phone was a “flip-phone”–meaning that information is readily visible just upon opening the phone. Thus, the text messages fell under the plain view doctrine, which says that anything that an officer can readily and immediately view does not require a warrant.

The Court also noted that the officer went no further than viewing the readily-observable text messages and did obtain a warrant before delving further into the phone’s database.

In the end, the appellate court upheld the conviction and ruled the search and seizure was constitutional because the incidents in this case occurred before the 2012 Supreme Court case. Officers are permitted to rely in good faith on the state of the law as it exists at the time they conduct an arrest. In fact, Maryland’s laws concerning such searches provided broad leeway to officers at the time the events of this case occurred.

Thus, the text messages observed by the officer were held to be admissible, and the conviction was upheld.

Fighting the admissibility of evidence is the difference between winning and losing a criminal trial. The attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience in trying criminal cases. If you or someone you know was arrested or charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.

The Maryland police officers who are defendants in the Freddie Gray trial just won what could be a big legal victory, even though their trials are a long way off. The court recently granted a request by the officers to have their cases tried separately. Putting aside the facts of the Gray case specifically, the ruling gives us an opportunity to consider the benefits of trying cases separately when there are multiple defendants.

Can Defendants Get Separate Trials?

Many crimes involve more than one perpetrator, and there can be multiple defendants charged with one particular crime. We tend to assume that they all will be tried together, in one trial, even if they are each charged with a different crime. Generally, doing that makes sense. If witness will be the same and physical evidence will be the same, why have two separate trials just because there may be two separate defendants?

Criminal defendants have a right to ask the court for a trial separate from their co-defendants. There may be a lot of reasons why this is not just beneficial, but in fact, may be necessary to preserve a criminal defendant’s due process rights.

The Benefits of Separate Trials

The biggest reason why a separate trial may be ordered is when there is a risk of one defendant “tainting” the other. Assume, for example, that one person shoots a convenience store clerk and the other stays in the car and drives it away when the crime is over.

Surely, both can be charged with homicide, even though only one pulled the trigger. In the minds of a jury, shooting someone may be perceived as worse than “just” driving the getaway car. The “getaway car” defendant may be concerned that a jury may, in its anger towards the shooter, convict both without analyzing each defendant’s facts and evidence separately. The “getaway car” defendant may not even want the perception of being associated with the shooter.

Disadvantages to Separate Trials

There are some disadvantages to separating trials, however. There could be an inconsistent verdict. One defendant could be convicted and the other acquitted, on almost identical facts. The defendant whose trial is first may be at a disadvantage because the second defendant now knows what the witnesses will say about the incident.

There is also the risk that the first defendant, perhaps already convicted, or pursuant to a deal, testifies against the second.

In higher profile cases, like the Freddie Gray case, if a verdict causes unrest or social disorder, the later defendants may also be concerned about getting a fair jury that is unaffected by public perception or by what is happening around them.

Contact a Criminal Defense Attorney Today

Like almost every legal decision in a trial, decisions can have good and bad side effects. There is rarely a right or wrong choice for every case, which is why it is vital to have an attorney that can weigh the options as to your particular scenario.

Criminal trials are often won by decisions made before the trial even starts. The attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience in trying criminal cases. If you or someone you know was arrested or charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.

Cell phones and the information they contain have been a hot topic in criminal law. Many cases have held that information and photos on a cell phone are admissible in court, but the subtle differences from case to case create new questions in the constitutional protections against search and seizure of cell phone information.

Robbery at Gas Station

A new case involves the viewing of information on a cellphone at the time of arrest. The case involves a man who was robbed at gunpoint at a gas station. According to the police, some men approached the victim, asked him if he wanted to buy weed, and when he refused, robbed him at gunpoint. The gas station attendant, who witnessed the incident, called 911 although he was not in a position to see the face of the man holding the gun. The defendants got away, stealing the victim’s car.

As coincidence would have it, the next day the victim happened to see the robbers’ car and the robbers themselves at a nearby barber shop, and called the police. The police followed the defendants and pulled over the car. When they did, they observed marijuana inside of it. The police arrested the defendants and seized the property, including a cell phone.

Upon taking the phone, the officer opened it, and observed that the phone’s “wallpaper” was a picture of the robbery victim’s stolen car.

Trial and Appeal Involve Wallpaper Photo

At trial, the defendant claimed that he was at the mall the night of the robbery, but the pictures on his phone of the stolen car were admitted as evidence at trial. The defendant was found guilty.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the officer was in violation of the Fourth Amendment when he searched the cell phone, and that the pictures of the car never should have been admitted as evidence.

Although a search and seizure requires a warrant, the court pointed out that searches that are incident to arrests are permissible in order to avoid evidence from being destroyed and to protect officers. The search can only be of the arrestee and “his immediate person,” in other words, the objects around him that are readily available and accessible. For example, if an arrestee could reach a glove compartment, it may be searched by an arresting officer. Even objects that don’t present an immediate threat–a cigarette box or a cell phone–can be searched to make sure they don’t present any danger.

Plain View Doctrine

The problem for the defendant in this case was that the picture was on his cellphone wallpaper, putting it in “plain view” of the arresting officer as he was conducting his otherwise lawful search. An officer may open a phone to power it off and make sure it is not a danger. Because opening it is permissible, so is anything that readily appears such as a picture on the wallpaper.

The court here allowed the evidence in. The decision doesn’t mean that an officer may scroll through cell phone data at will during a routine stop, but because the phone in this case was a flip phone that required opening, the officer was able to view the wallpaper, that on a smartphone would require a password to access.

Constitutional rights can be complex and hinge on subtle details. The attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience defending the constitutional rights of criminal defendants. If you or someone you know was arrested or charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.

Often, winning a criminal trial involves going beyond facts and criminal laws to understanding and using the rules of evidence. The best evidence in the world is useless if it can’t be out before a jury. In a recent case, a significant conviction was overturned based on a court’s preventing a criminal defendant from presenting his evidence.

Allegations of Assault on a Minor

The case arose from an allegation of sexual abuse on a minor child. The alleged perpetrator was the minor’s godparent. The families were close; their kids played with each other and they were neighbors, even doing chores for each other.

The charges stem from the minor’s testimony that the neighbor touched him sexually while the two were in the neighbor’s attic and car. On each occasion of abuse, the neighbor warned the child not to tell anyone what had happened.

The child did tell his dad, which led to an investigation, charges, and a trial. Because of the child’s fear of reporting what had happened, his stories had some inconsistencies in them. For example, he initially lied to a social worker, telling her nothing had happened.

The neighbor testified at trial that the car in which the touching supposedly happened wasn’t even working at the time, that the garage door where the attic was located was always open, and that he never committed the acts charged against him. In many instances, the neighbor contended, third parties were present, and thus the sexual abuse could not have occurred.

However, the neighbor’s lawyer was prevented from cross examining on many of these points.
After much deliberation, the jury eventually convicted the neighbor on three counts of sexual abuse.

Appeal Alleges Improper Exclusion of Testimony

On appeal, the neighbor argued that he was impermissibly prevented from conducting full cross examination, as the sixth amendment to the constitution requires. A court can limit cross examination, within reason, when questioning is harassing, repetitive, confusing, or marginally relevant.

The appellate court agreed that the neighbor was prevented from effectively conveying his argument that the victim’s father had pressured the victim into saying that the neighbor had committed the assaults.

The trial court excluded the minor’s statements about what his father had told him on hearsay grounds. But the Appellate Court found that the statements were not hearsay–they were merely being brought forth by the neighbor to show the pressure that the minor was put under by his father.

The Court noted that the minor’s veracity–propensity to tell the truth–was a big issue in the case. The minor did testify that after telling the social worker nothing had happened, he spoke to his father, and only then leveled the accusations at the neighbor.

Because of the difficulty the jurors had in deliberating, and the questions they had, it certainly could be said that the testimony, if allowed by the trial court, could have swayed the jury, and thus, its exclusion created harmful error. The conviction was reversed, and a retrial was ordered.

Understanding how to try cases and to get evidence in or keep it out is crucial to a complete defense of criminal charges. The attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience at all stages of the criminal defense process. If you or someone you know was arrested or charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.

When convicted of a sexual assault crime, it should come as no surprise that one of the possible penalties could include being listed as a sexual offender on a public registry. To end up on such a list, a defendant likely had to plead guilty to or be convicted of an offense.

States Starting to Require Transcripts be Noted

But many states are now requiring that universities that have dismissed or expelled students for sexual assault list those students as expelled for a “code of conduct violation” (or other more detailed notations) on their transcripts. Recently, New York state passed such a law, right after Virginia.

Maryland recently tried to enact a similar statute that failed and never became law. The rationale for rejecting it echoes the reason why many people oppose such a law: Doing so creates a kind of sexual offender registry, and doing that would require academic proceedings to contain full-blown constitutional protections the same way the legal system does. Many are concerned that requiring such protections and due process could actually make it more difficult for schools to punish and expel sexual offenders.

Furthermore, the entire system only works based on the idea that the investigations conducted by schools are correct. But most schools simply don’t have the time, procedures, or ability, to actually assert whether a sexual assault allegation is true or not. The standard for expelling is often significantly less than what the law would require to convict someone. And, the investigation and hearing procedures for one school may differ vastly from others, making the entire system lack consistency.

Proponents Advocate Protecting Other Students

Proponents claim that marking a transcript this way allows the schools where the expelled student might transfer to know they may be accepting someone with a history of sexual offenses. Schools should know if they are accepting someone who may be a criminal risk to other students, and there is a concern that sexual offenders may simply bounce from school to school.

In fact, an Oregon school was recently sued for recruiting college athletes that were involved in an assault. The suit claims that the school should have known about the athlete’s history but because there was no notation on the transcript, the school denies having any such knowledge.

Law Could Make Lawsuits Easier

Schools may see the transcript issue as a mixed bag–on the one hand, requiring expulsions may help schools keep out students they fear will cause trouble. But on the other hand, having the notations there could make the school civilly liable if the student is ultimately accepted and commits another crime, as the school could no longer use lack of knowledge as a defense to a civil suit.

The issue is a controversial one, as these laws risk creating sexual offender lists, without the constitutional protections or uniformity that ordinarily would be expected in such cases.

Sexual offense crimes are serious, and can have long lasting ramifications. Make sure you get top legal advice from attorneys who understand how serious the charges are. The attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience at all stages of the criminal defense process. If you or someone you know was arrested or charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.

Amid the fight over Maryland’s drug laws, the Governor’s veto of them, and the fight to overturn that veto, something else was vetoed by the Governor: The right for convicted felons to vote.

The issue is becoming a hot topic nationally. In fact, the Huffington Post recently ran an article studying how states deal with the issue.

Why Allow Felons to Vote?

It may initially seem counterintuitive to allow felons to vote. But proponents have both legal and civil reasons for why it is a good idea.

Legally, the logic is that these individuals have fulfilled their obligations to society by serving their sentences. They have completed most of their punishment and should be able to continue to live as any other citizen would. For some, a sentence can seem lifelong when voting rights are restricted.

There is also a strong argument that the restoration of voting rights prevents recidivism–that is, the return to crime or repeating of past crimes. Disenfranchised, detached citizens are not helpful for society. Individuals who have a voice that is heard by way of the voting booth have a stake in their neighborhoods, feel like meaningful members of society, and thus are less likely to repeat past crimes.

Many people restricted from voting may have completed a prison sentence and have since reassimilated into society, holding down jobs and becoming pillars of their community. But because they are still technically on some level of post-conviction parole, they still have no voting rights.

In many cases, even the victim’s families want convicted felons to reform themselves, shape up, and become productive members of society. That often is encouraged by allowing felons to vote.

States Vary in Felon Voting Laws
Almost every state other than Vermont and Maine restrict convicted felons from voting to some degree. Many others have varying levels of restrictions, from preventing those on probation from voting, to prohibiting those who have completed their sentence from voting. Maryland does allow those who have completed their sentence to vote, but not those on probation.

Although 18 states recently considered laws expanding voting rights to some extent, only Wyoming has passed one.

The number of people affected by these laws can be significant. In Florida, for example, approximately 10% of the total voting age population is affected by conviction-related voting restrictions. Florida doesn’t even allow those who have completed their sentence to vote–voters must apply five to seven years after completion in order to restore voting rights. Maryland is only at 1.4%. Some states, such as Oregon, Montana or North Dakota, have rates at .5% or below. The national average is 2.5%.

A criminal conviction can have long-lasting ramifications. You need attorneys that can advise you on the consequences of all your options if you are accused of committing a crime. The attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience at all stages of the criminal defense process. If you or someone you know was arrested or charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.

The crime of drunk driving (driving under the influence) is one that often involves challenges to an officer’s sufficiency of evidence. Was there probable cause for a traffic stop? Was the offender’s blood alcohol level was above the legal limit? Was the person arrested for DUI actually driving? That may sound like a strange question, but a recent case raised just that issue.

Officers Find Car Crashed

In a recent case, Baltimore police were called to the scene of a traffic accident. The car was smoking, with fluids spilling out of it, and was still running. By all accounts, the car had been running before jumping the curb and crashing. The defendant was slumped over the wheel, unresponsive and intoxicated.

The defendant finally came to, exited the vehicle, and very wearily, began walking to his home, which was close to the accident. He refused a field sobriety test. Notably, refusal to take a sobriety test can now be used against a Defendant in trial, and the Defendant was convicted.

Was the Defendant Driving?

But was the defendant driving for the purposes of the statute? Nobody had observed him actually driving or the vehicle moving. Is finding a defendant intoxicated behind the wheel of a crashed car enough to infer that the defendant was actually driving while intoxicated?

The appellate court concluded that circumstantial evidence could be used to determine that the defendant had been driving, and in fact, in similar cases, it has been. In cases where officers felt an engine of a stalled car was warm, or where a car was observed overheating, courts have allowed juries to conclude that the defendant had been driving the vehicle even though nobody observed it happening.

Facts Count

There are cases in which the analysis is tougher. In many cases where people are passed out drunk behind the wheels of parked cars, there is no way to know if a defendant had driven drunk and then parked (illegal) or had been drunk and then just want to their parked car and sat there without ever driving it (legal). A person may simply be “sleeping off” intoxication inside a parked car. But in those cases, there was no evidence the car been immediately driven.

This case involved an actual accident, which can’t happen unless a car has been driven. The car had been found over a curb and in the bushes–there was no way a car even gets there without being driven first. Thus, the jury was justified in finding the defendant had been driving while intoxicated.

As you can imagine, many of these kinds of cases turn on fine factual details. Juries can consider all reasonable inferences and reasonable doubts. The question often comes down to whether other options are actually reasonable or not, and in this case, there was no other reasonable hypothesis than that the car had been immediately driven while the defendant was intoxicated.

DUI cases can be involved and require extensive investigation of all the facts. The attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience at all stages of the criminal defense process. If you or someone you know was arrested or charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.

With all the talk surrounding the tragic church shooting in South Carolina last month, the news has been reporting often on the topic of hate crimes. We tend to understand what a hate crime is from a layman’s perspective, but what is a hate crime in the legal sense, and how does it affect criminal defendants charged with crimes?

What is a Hate Crime?

In common terms, hate crimes are common crimes, even minor ones, which are made more severe if they target a specific protected class of people. This doesn’t mean that a crime happens to be perpetrated on a minority or protected class, but rather means that the crime was specifically targeted to a protected group. Usually, these crimes are used to “send messages” to minority groups or to scare larger populations of people.

Hate crimes can transform generally modest or low-severity crimes into very serious offenses. For example, vandalizing a street sign is a crime that many youths often find themselves in trouble for, but rarely does it permanently affect someone’s record or prevent one from living a meaningful and productive life. However, if the vandalism says, “We hate (fill in a race or religion),” then the crime becomes a hate crime and is much more severe.

Proving Hate Crimes

With “written” crimes like vandalism or defacing houses of worship, it is often easy to tell if a protected class has been targeted. But sometimes it is not so easy, such as when someone is assaulted on the street. The state often must prove that a person was actually targeted because of their race or religion in order to increase the crime to a hate crime.

This may require getting into the head and intentions of the perpetrator. But sometimes, there is other evidence. In many cases, someone shooting out of hate will unload an entire round of bullets, or take other actions that entail violence beyond an “ordinary” assault or battery.

Hate Crimes and the First Amendment

On the surface, it may seem like hate crimes are a violation of our first amendment right to free speech. After all, as detestable as it is, our constitution does protect someone’s right to hate whoever they want to and to speak or write publicly about that hate.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that punishing hate crimes is constitutional because they aren’t restricting speech, but merely increasing sentencing for crimes that involve hate towards a protected class. Governments have long had the authority to increase sentencing for certain enhancing factors.

Protected Classes

For simplicity, we have referenced race and religion as “protected classes,” but there can be many more classes of people that can be protected by hate crime laws. Maryland protects gender (male/female) and sexual preference, making crimes that target, for example, women or homosexuals, hate crimes. Some states don’t have such a broad definition of groups covered by hate crime laws.

The FBI has a full database of hate crime statistics for review, breaking down hate crimes by the offenders, locations, types of crimes, and other data.

If you have questions about an arrest, or are charged with a crime of any kind, the criminal defense attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience at all stages of the criminal defense process. If you or someone you know was arrested or charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.